04 November 2015

Where eagles dare

The empire of Amsterdam publican Peter van der Arend has begun extending its reach out of the city centre. Until 2009 it was just his Dutch-only beer bar Arendsnest on Herengracht, and then the American-themed Beer Temple opened, not far away in the heart of the old city. But 2015 has seen the numbers double and now there's Craft & Draft and the Jopen Proeflokaal, the latter a joint project with the Haarlem brewery. Unique among them, and unlike most decent Amsterdam beer bars, Arendsnest opens early in the afternoon. So here we were on a sunny Monday just past 12 with the pub almost to ourselves. I picked up a flyer that advertised the four establishments and the promise that if you bought a drink in all four in one day, they'd give you a commemorative t-shirt at the last stop to celebrate your achievement. Well! The prospect of owning a t-shirt with something beer related on it was too tempting to resist.

The flyer helpfully includes the information that all four bars are situated along the number 1 tram route, and it happened that we were already carrying transport passes. The only logistical question was one of time: the other checkpoints didn't open to late and we couldn't very well sit in Arendsnest all afternoon. Side trips would be necessary.

All this was discussed and planned over the first beers of the day. For me, a Huisvader, a pale ale from Amsterdam's own Oedipus brewery. It was suitably breakfasty for the occasion, with fresh grapefruit and jaffa notes and then a kind of chocolate orange oiliness. A little bit of oxidation spoils it slightly, but otherwise a pleasant pithy refresher. And while I had the juice, she had the coffee: Mikkie = Cattivella was brewed for the pub at Del Ducato and is billed as a crème brûlée stout: 9.5% ABV but with a subtle and sober coffee aroma. There's certainly vanilla and dark chocolate in the flavour but it's not overdone and not oversweet, adding merely a touch of complexity to an otherwise serious and roasty big stout. I expected a novelty sugarbomb but it's actually very well put together.

With these on board, we went off to do some light shopping at De Bierkoning and then pay the visit to 't IJ I wrote about on Monday. By the time we came back to the city centre, Beer Temple was open. Picking randomly from the American selection I came away from the bar with a glass of Hop Hash by Caldera Brewing in Oregon. It's the classic sort of sticky American IPA I thought had nearly died out. 6.5% ABV, murky amber in colour and loaded with toffee to the point where the hops are barely discernible. I feel no love for its retro stylings. Across the table, a Resin IIPA by Sixpoint who, apparently, don't just make beer for JD Wetherspoon. This is 9% ABV and a limpid shade of red-gold. The aroma is an intense bong-hit of weedy herbs while the body is light and the flavour spritzy and peppery, finishing on a crisp green celery note. It's very happy and easy-going for such a thumping great ABV but it's impossible not to enjoy.

Having claimed the recipt, we headed off, but we did stop in at Beer Temple again the following day. I insisted because, while I had been on an American kick on the previous visit, I didn't want to miss the Rodenbach Foederbier they had on. This is an unblended iteration of their wood-aged sour classic. It looks murky in the photo but held up to the light was actually a perfectly clear dark red. I was surprised how sweet it was, laying on lots of balsamic strawberries and then a smooth, tannic, peach tea effect in the finish. It's not, I guess, hugely different from plain Rodenbach, though a little stronger at 6% ABV. It's just sweeter and rounder and that little bit more complex. I'm glad I stopped for it.

Over my oohs and ahhs, the missus tucked into an Evil Twin I Love You With My Stout, a thick 12%-er with spicy herbs in the aroma and a whole chain of olde worlde sweetshops in the flavour, redolent of humbugs and liquorice. It does get a little harsh after a while, but works well as a sipper.

But back to Monday and before continuing the quest we had an afternoon appointment around the corner in Gollem with fellow visitor from Dublin Dr John. Not that one ever needs an excuse to visit Gollem. My choice from the draught listing was an uncertain one: Troubadour Magma Triple Spiked Brett. Magma is straight up one of the world's great beers so why would you mess with that, especially with something as invasive as brettanomyces yeast? I was expecting disappointment and dismay but it is amazing. If anything, the brett enhances the hop juiciness and despite the very definite farmyard funk it still tastes gorgeously fresh. The funk is not a gimmick, it's not there for its own sake and really does provide a tart balance to the tropical fruit sweetness in the base beer, clearing out some of the heavy sugary malt. Tangy, refreshing and counter-intuitively clean, this is an absolute triumph. I couldn't imagine ordering anything else for the second round.

We parted ways after the two beers and it was back to the mission at hand. Tram 1 took us down towards Leidseplein and Jopen Proeflokaal. Though the area is densely packed with bars and restaurants it was very much a quiet Monday evening. We had the pub, a clean and sparse café-style joint, entirely to ourselves. I was expecting a heavy Jopen presence on the taps but, like Uiltje-Bar the previous day, it's more about the guest beers. I insisted, however, and chose Malle Babbe, Jopen's 5% ABV wheat beer. It's savoury and grainy; crisp and clean; inoffensive and nondescript. There's a bit of bubblegum under the cereal but it's rather underdone. I chalked this one up to a palate reset after a long day's beering.

For herself I chose Stone Ruination 2.0. I'd been disappointed by the reformulated Pale Ale at GBBF so was keen to see if this double IPA was any better now that I had it on keg as the brewer intended. There's a lovely spicy mandarin aroma and seriously big hop resins and bitterness. But it's rather thin for 8.5% ABV, leaving the flavour harsh and uncharacteristically unbalanced. I do hope they haven't messed up the whole range with this 2.0 business.

By now, ten hours and five pubs on, it was a race against the alcohol in our bloodstreams. A few stops further south got us to the door of Craft & Draft, I ordered two beers, shoved the receipts at the barman and Hooray! T-shirts!

Craft & Draft is a very nicely done bar, very American in its styling, spacious and angular, with a line of taps behind the bar that seems to go on for ever. To celebrate our achievement, imperial stout seemed liked the sensible option. One of us (no idea which) had Thoughtless from English brewery Red Willow. This is a beautifully balanced beer, even at a thumping 9.4% ABV. The chocolate and light caramel notes make it sweet and add a solid no-nonsense heat, but it's gorgeously silky and slips away indecently fast. Kees! Export Porter, meanwhile, is an even bigger 10.5% and makes sure that you know it. The aroma burns like a dark sherry and the flavour is a rush of strong dark beer flavours: putty, green veg and marker pens. There's perhaps a little too much going on in it.

Somehow we got back to the hotel and amazingly I remembered the can of Maui Mana wheat beer I'd bought in Bierkoning earlier and left in the room fridge. A hyperactive spider has scrawled in my notebook that it tastes a lot like Blue Moon: the same sort of sweet, slightly artificial, orange cordial flavour that's thirst-quenching when nicely cold but shouldn't be allowed warm on the bedside table while you rest your eyes for just a minute.

Next thing the binmen are rattling their way along the street outside and you have to pack and check out. On the final afternoon we took a long and lingering wander back to Centraal for the airport train, dropping in that second time to Beer Temple followed by a farewell round at In De Wildeman. They seem to have a penchant for vintage versions of fairly mainstream beers in here, though there was nothing gimmicky about the 2014 Brand Doppelbock I tasted. It retained a classic mix of chocolate and liquorice, full-bodied and smooth in a warming 7.5% ABV. And I finally got to try 't IJ Galaxy Session Ale after being denied in Gollem last year and at the brewery the previous day. It was well worth the wait: a dark gold colour with an assertive jaffa pith bite at the front and then a tangy aftermath with a little ice tea. Very refreshing, very flavoursome and, at a strength unheard-of for Dutch craft beer -- 3.8% ABV -- absolutely sessionable. But I only had time for one. Station. Airport. Home.

Always a pleasure, Amsterdam. I look forward to whatever challenge you have for me next time.